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Overcoming Culture Shock

Chinese store

In the last two posts I talked about how I’ve changed personally, professionally and socially. However, what experience has changed me most? It took quite a bit of thought to answer this question. Finally I realized that the experience that changed me and helped me grow the most was culture shock. We tend to think of culture shock as finding out all the negative parts of a culture that bother you or get on your nerves. But actually, there are several phases of culture shock.

The first phase of culture shock is sometimes called the Honeymoon Phase. In this phase everything about the new culture seems interesting and exciting. I quite enjoyed this phase. I was excited to be in China and found Chinese culture interesting. (I still do.) At first, I seemed to adapt very quickly. Many of the other new foreign faculty members thought I had been in China for quite a long time because it seemed that I had adapted very quickly to life at Sias. They didn’t realize that I’d only been at Sias a couple of weeks longer than they had been. Little did I know that a couple of months into my Chinese adventure, phase two was lurking around the corner.

Phase two involves irritability and frustration with the new culture. Many things that now amuse me or that I now enjoy got on my last nerve. For example, why should it take an hour to conduct any kind of business at the bank? Why couldn’t I simply go to the store and find a bottle of vinegar? (I once mistook soy sauce for vinegar. That incident seems funny now but at the time I was quite irate.) Finding some other grocery items was also challenging. Asking for help using my translator didn’t always help. I once tried to purchase a cleaner for my kitchen sink using the language translator on my phone. I was alternatively shown stove hood grease remover, floor cleaner, and toilet bowl cleaner. I never did find sink cleaner. (Now I use baking soda.) Taking a bus and a taxi by myself for the first time seemed to be insurmountable challenges. Finally, having to climb flights of stairs no matter where I needed to go,all of these seemingly insignificant things and many others suddenly bothered me out of all proportion to the actual situations. Add to this my unfolding discovery that teaching Chinese students wasn’t always the same as teaching American student’s and you’ll understand why my November was very miserable.

Fortunately, by December I was coming out of the initial bout of frustration and entering phase three. I was gradually adjusting to Chinese culture. I felt comfortable going to the store. I could find most of the things I normally purchased at the grocery store. I was learning the words for numbers so I could pay for my groceries. Taking a bus was now routine. Climbing stairs took a little longer to become routine but it finally became an enjoyable exercise as I saw myself getting stronger and stronger.Going to the bank was an opportunity to catch up with one of my Chinese friends. I felt more comfortable and I was developing a more objective view of Chinese culture. Things were neither all amazing and exciting nor were they all bad.

I’m not sure when I entered phase four which is becoming bicultural. I only know that I now feel a sense of belonging in Chinese culture. I enjoy or don’t notice many of the things that used to bug me. While some experiences are still new and exciting, I’m not constantly surprised by normal every day experiences. I have some understanding of why the Chinese do things the way they do and I appreciate it.

I’ve yet to experience phase five of culture shock, which is re-entry to my native culture and discovering that it isn’t what I expected it to be either, to any great extent. The worst I’ve experienced is reaching for my phone and remembering that I can’t simply and easily pay for things with my phone like I would in China…

Have you ever lived in or visited different countries or do you plan to? If you have visited different countries, what surprised you? What did you enjoy? What frustrated you? If you’ve never been to another country where would you like to go? What do you think might be different? I’m interested in hearing your point of view.

If you have questions I’d also love to answer them. Zàijiàn (good bye) for now. I hope to talk to you again soon.

Academics In Asia
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